Participating in online chats, discussion groups and social networks can lead to wonderful online friendships. It is very easy to feel comfortable with someone we meet online because there is a false sense of security we feel because we are connecting in the comfort of our own homes.

While we may know many things about our online friends — their favourite food, favourite movies, where they work/study or last went for their holidays — we need to remember that they are essentially still a stranger. How can we even be sure that what they've told us is true?

Many people on social networks or dating sites are indeed sincere and looking for genuine friendships. But predators are on the prowl too, watching and waiting. Those who are up to no good often build relationships and develop trust with unsuspecting users before convincing them to join illegal activities or to take advantage of them. Think carefully before placing your full trust in people you just met online.

Here's how you can protect yourself against potential danger:

  • Try to add friends or accept friends' request only if you know the person well, or if they are recommended by another friend
  • When making new friends - don't believe everything you read online. The internet lets people describe themselves, but that can mean information can be left out, or altogether false. Review information that they share with you to check for inconsistencies.
  • Refrain from using the web-camera or sending provocative photos of yourself or anyone else
  • Never give out personal information like full name, addresses, phone numbers, school names or where you work online
  • Say no to any request that makes you feel uncomfortable, including face-to-face meetings
  • If an online friend starts getting intimate with you or asks you sexually suggestive questions, back off and ignore them in the future. If they persist, tell a parent or other trusted real world adult and report them to the site administrator.
  • Block and remove any online friend who continues to make you feel uncomfortable or pressure you into doing something you are not willing to
  • Don't be embarrassed to insist on following the rules. If the person cares about you, they will want to respect you for being careful. Your safety is the most important thing.

If you would really like to meet up with your online friend, here are the precautions you should take:

  • Always assume the person you are dealing with on the Internet is not who they claim to be and conduct yourself accordingly
  • When you do meet, do it with a friend and in a very public place, such as at a mall or restaurant. Afterwards, do not arrange to go anywhere private with the new friend.
  • For teenagers, always tell your parents (or another trusted adult, like a teacher, aunt) what you are up to, where you will be and when you will be back and don't deviate from your plans without clearing it with them first.
  • Never ask another person to lie for you so you can meet an online friend. If your meeting has to start with a lie, it can't possibly be good.

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Just as our parents used to warn us about not talking to strangers and not accepting sweets or gifts from them, today's parents need to understand the risks on cyber space and advise their children accordingly. Many parents are concerned about the risk of sexual grooming. Parents should have conversations with their children on what they do online, and who they talk to, and in the process, talk about the need for discernment and critical thinking and exercising good judgement.

It is part of growing up that teenagers want to make new friends. Sometimes, youths want to meet to trade game cards and collectibles, and in such instances, parents should accompany their child to the meeting.

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